David Beavers's Reviews > Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
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Jun 07, 12


I've been waiting, panther-like, for the right combination of caffeine and personal gumption to strike, to attack writing about this, since it really is one of my favorite books ever-ever, and one of the most fascinating things I've ever read. I've read this book twice and I could care less what people say about it, because when I *do* care, I tend to grit my teeth over the ridiculous comments & reviews that tend to come up in discussing David Foster Wallace's work. People like to levy the criticism that the book is "sloppy" or "digressive". Really? You think? An 1100 page book with 200 pages of small-print footnotes might be a little digressive or indulgent or maddening? It might stray a wee bit into uncharted, dark-woods territory? Jeez.

There is, in art, what I like to call the "crazy project". Once you go to work on the Crazy Project -- C.P. for short -- you don't leave the Crazy Project. You don't FINISH the crazy project. You can -- when you are really involved in it, I mean really involved -- scarcely even talk about it; you may not even realize you're involved in it. The C.P. involves being given a hammer (the only real tool of the artist), a mouthful of nails, and being sent "over yonder hill" and told to do AS MUCH DAMAGE AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN with the hammer you have been given. When working on the C.P., the creative force is one in the same as the destructive force, and your hammer is a useful tool regardless of which way you are swinging it.

I think DFW is one of the most fascinating authors alive -- he's doing work with the English language in the tradition of Kathy Acker, Bill Burroughs, or James Joyce. The marketplace demands "novels" and so people oblige, but there is a difference between a "novel" and a BOOK, and I would consider a book to be more interesting -- if more difficult and less "composed"-- and Infinite Jest is definitely a BOOK, and shouldn't be treated as a "novel" in the same way, say, "Life of Pi" is a novel (and I do think Life of Pi is terrific, don't get me wrong). But, if you want immaculately written works of fiction by Wallace, check out his short stories -- especially the ones in Girl w/ Curious Hair -- because these conform more to what you would expect from traditional notions of "reading fiction". If you want a beautiful, wildly ambitious, insanely indulgent, uncompromising mind-bending skull-violating MESS, one that comprises an entire Victorian manor of the Crazy Project, then Infinite Jest may well be worth your while.

The book is, definitely, a mess, let's not mince words. It is also obsessively-compulsively mathematical in the way that DFW seems to enjoy; there is an order to the chaos, and it did take reading it a second time to pull out some of the exquisitely crafted crystalline plot strands he was working at. Linearity & coherence of disparate plot elements is not what the book is interested in, be warned.

But before I make the case of this being some academic project with no soul, let me say that reading this, I was genuinely surprised and moved by how deep & real the characters in it become. The characters in here are terribly tragic, in a real Shakespearian sense (the book's title is after all a reference to Hamlet), and their tapestry in this book's pages is as intimate and heartrending as it is vast; this book is a language project but one that remains absolutely invested in the lives of the people involved in that "project".

The book is about a lot of things: American culture & the nature of desire, fathers and sons, art, addiction, institutions, drugs, consciousness, film & the nature of narrative . . . too much to go into. More than anything, I think, the book is about addiction, and how our desires are moderated and mediated by culture, and how desire & addiction are entwined, and how Westerners approach these things.

Infinite Jest is wildly funny and, like I mentioned above, almost unexpectedly moving: there is a kind of veneer between the reader and the characters; they are guarded and stoic people, for the most part, and "getting to know" them can be as frustrating as trying to "get to know" someone in your own life who is guarded and careful with their emotions. But over the course of hundreds of pages you learn the inner-workings of IJ's huge cast, and their emotional motivations and subtleties begin to resonate with you in ways that dig so deep I think they're almost frightening.

This book is dense enough -- to say the least -- that I think you can get out of it whatever you are willing to put into it. Isn't this true of most good art? But the depth here is incredible. To say I'm "biased" and a bit blinded to criticisms about this book is hardly the point -- I think its a marvel, I think its a mess, I think it taught me what the difference is between a book & a novel, and why I think BOOKS are what the front-line artists working on the Crazy Project are really hammering out.

update/addendum: I wrote this when DFW was still alive. It pains me to even go back and read this review -- "one of the most fascinating authors alive". I can reliably drop the last word of that now. DFW's suicide still stings like no other artist for me. I do know I'm not alone there, a lot of people who admire his work feel it. We were robbed -- it's selfish, incredibly so, but so is suicide.

Objectively, I still think Girl With Curious Hair is probably the best place to start, but I didn't start there, I started here, and it worked out okay. Just know this is a glorious mess, be patient with it, the book wants to be your daddy, but you have to be its daddy, let it teach you as you guide it it -- it's a living thing, this book, all the more precious now.
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Comments (showing 1-14)




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message 14: by Mariannna (new) - added it

Mariannna that was a GREAT review :)
seriously.
i love you.


Rebecca I am in the midst of reading this for the first time, and you perfectly put into words how I am feeling as I push through. Reading this book is equivalent to running a mental marathon, more difficult than I could imagine at times, and surprisingly easy at others. I love it. Thanks for posting your experience reading this book!


message 12: by Eric (new) - added it

Eric Palmer Great review. I like the idea of the crazy project. It can be a tough idea to put into words (which is funny because it's ABOUT words). I found DFW while looking for the heirs of Joyce and Proust. I heard about this big "meta-novel" called Infinite Jest and held off for a while, thinking it was too smug and what not. Then I read Consider the Lobster and the recently deceased DFW became my friend. And I trusted him to have my best interests as a reader and a person at heart... But I'm rambling. Great review.


message 11: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Fantastic review.

There is, in art, what I like to call the "crazy project". Once you go to work on the Crazy Project -- C.P. for short -- you don't leave the Crazy Project. You don't FINISH the crazy project. You can -- when you are really involved in it, I mean really involved -- scarcely even talk about it; you may not even realize you're involved in it. The C.P. involves being given a hammer (the only real tool of the artist), a mouthful of nails, and being sent "over yonder hill" and told to do AS MUCH DAMAGE AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN with the hammer you have been given. When working on the C.P., the creative force is one in the same as the destructive force, and your hammer is a useful tool regardless of which way you are swinging it.

HA, this feels like reading Anna Karenina right now! I am swinging a hammer at its pages.


David Beavers Martin wrote: "Nice review, but really you need to get things right: I think you mean *couldn't* care less. I *could* care less about my mom or about grammar. I couldn't care less about people who don't get th..."

I could care less about the difference -- but I don't. You're right of course, and I know the difference, but it's one of those weird mistake-phrases that has sneaked into the language and has stayed there. It has come to mean something it doesn't actually, since "I could care less" doesn't really have much use as a phrase (I mean when do we say that and mean it literally?). I know there's a lot of people out there who don't know this but still, it's impolite to assume ignorance over a simple mistake. For the record: I was annoyed that I'd made the mistake when I saw you point it out, and that's why it took me like a damn year to write a reply.


Brandon Cahall David, keep writing reviews... your time is better spent in that pursuit than policing the grammar of those who do, IMHO. first thing I do when people try and rip apart a review is see how many reviews they've written and its usually none. Great review BTW.


Suzanne A review as discursive and multithreaded as the book - *wink*


Jessica So I don't know you, but I just finished my review of IJ and yours puts mine to shame. You said everything I wanted to say. I might as well just put a link to your review where mine should be. Way to hit the nail on the head with that big ole hammer.


message 6: by Johnny (new) - added it

Johnny Mosley Great review. I just finished the novel; I also thumbed through the footnotes hoping insanely for more words to read. The last time this happened to me I was in the fifth grade and had just finished Watership Down, afterwords which I cried for quite a while.


message 5: by Danny (new) - added it

Danny Baptista Can't help thinking of DFW himself when I read his description of deepest depression in Infinite Jest, being the state of mind that is just so desperately painful that you absolutely can't stand feeling like that for another minute more.


message 4: by Stephen M (last edited Jan 20, 2013 01:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen M I love the idea of the C.P. and it is a brilliant way to respond to critics of the book. I think you've really nailed an important aspect about this book and a lot of others w/r/t self-indulgence and rambling-ness. It seems like a necessity of massive artistic projects where the artist throws him/herself completely into that creative undertaking in order to carve a huge slice out of the world. Well done. This is making me reconsider some criticisms I've made of other huge, ambitious works.


message 3: by Leo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Leo Walsh Excellent review. And inline with what I am thinking. There is no Italo Calvino tricks here. Just some excellent writing. And soe finely drawn characters. I am not done, but after nearly 600 pages in, I'm pretty sure it'll end up as a five-star review and on my favs shelf.

But I have an FYI. That could bum you out. You refer to Wallace as a great living writer. Unfortunately, he killed himself in 2008. What a loss. But it gives you a sense of why he wrote some of that dark, twisted stuff like Lenz and his animal thing so vividly...


message 2: by alzo (last edited Jul 04, 2013 12:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

alzo Best review i've ever read. Does the book justice. Unlike those pompous reviews we get from the "professionals" in the papers. I agree with your idea of the novel vs the book. A novel has to be structured, technical. It has to follow the rules. Then it will win a prize for best novel. The Booker; The Pulitzer. I often see these same professionals say the novel is dead as an art form. Hmm, this is because all they want to do is look at reproductions (albeit very nice reproductions). Let's have an original shall we. The people who criticise DFW, the same people who would say: This guy Picasso, not much of a painter is he; This guy Beethoven, such indulgence, ugh.


message 1: by J (new) - rated it 5 stars

J Faith i love how careful and exact the positive reviews of this book are. infinite jest has a very special, sensitive, angry, attentive audience. :)


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